Gladstonians in the populist competition for the vote of the masses.
This decline was reflected in the sphere of political debate and ideas.
For example, The Liberal Unionist, the partyâ€™s official journal, germinated,
briefly blossomed and then withered in the short space of five years:
started as a penny weekly on 30 March 1887, it became a monthly in
August, and ceased publication, abruptly, in September 1892, with little
explanation except that Home Rule had ceased to be an imminent dan-
ger.256 During the final two years of its life the number of letters to the
editor shrunk and the advertisements â€“ always an important source of
income for a periodical â€“ had halved to only one page.
The main problem of the Liberal Unionists was the vulnerability of
their electoral base â€“ especially affecting their Radical wing. While before
June 1886 there were thirty-two Radical MPs who had opposed Home
Rule, after the election their number dropped to about twenty, which
further dwindled to eleven in 1892. The Parnell divorce scandal merely
slowed down the Home Rule advance, which, however, was enough
to turn the 1886 Unionist majority of 118 into an 1892 Home Rule one
of 40. By then the Gladstonians were the single largest party in the
R MacGeah to H. de F. Montgomery, 14 Feb. 1890, D. 627/428/130; 19 Feb. 1890, D.
627/428/131; and 5 Mar. 1890, D. 627/428/132.
â€˜Scores of constituencies were lost to the Liberal Party by the operation of the Protestant
working men sent from this country to frighten English working men against Home
Rule.â€™ (W. Hastings, from Dublin, to Rosebery, 18 Aug. 1895, in Ellis Papers, 4039.)
J. Chamberlain to W. E. Gladstone, 19 Dec. 1885, in Chamberlain, Political memoir,
Valedictory by the editor St Loe Strachey in The Liberal Unionist, Sep. 1892, 1. The
decision was taken by the Liberal Unionist Association after the general election. There
was no prior warning. About the prospective Second Home Rule Bill Strachey said that
Gladstone had already accepted the retention of the Irish MPs at Westminster, and that
this would make his proposal far less threatening, although, in any case, it was hopeless
in view of the governmentâ€™s small majority.
The rise and fall of Radical Unionism 269
Commons and had secured 49 per cent of the English vote, and a majority
of both the Scottish and the Welsh vote.257
Under the circumstances, the question as to whether there should be a
merger with the Conservatives was â€˜in the airâ€™. Those who argued in
favour suggested that the operation would not be like joining the old
enemy because â€˜[t]here are no Tories now. The Conservative of to-day
is, to all intents, the modern representative of the Liberalism of twenty
years ago.â€™ In any case, the relationship between the two parties â€˜must
either become more intimate or end in ruptureâ€™ â€“ which would result in
Liberal Unionist extinction.258 Those who were opposed to the merger
pointed out that the formation of a â€˜National partyâ€™ would be strongly
resisted in the constituencies and would inevitably lead to the alienation
of many party activists and the demise of the popular liberal vote, in
particular that â€˜of the Liberal and Radical workmen of the country at
the next general election. Though they are deaf to us now, the working
classes will listen to us at a general election when the facts are clearer.
They did so before.â€™259
Not all working men were â€˜deafâ€™ to Liberal Unionism, but there was a
general expectation that they would soon become so even in the strong-
holds of Radical Unionism. The Conservatives were fully aware of their
alliesâ€™ embarrassment and â€“ especially at a constituency level â€“ increas-
ingly intolerant of Radical Unionist claims on parliamentary seats which
could only be held with the aid of Conservative votes. Even in
Birmingham the truce between the Chamberlain and the Tory caucus
came under threat repeatedly in 1889â€“95. There the Liberal schism had
been experienced as a crisis of quasi-religious proportions, with â€˜political
aversions . . . breaking everywhere old friendships and severing old
alliesâ€™.260 Although the Liberals were not to secure a seat there for gen-
erations, the Radical Unionists were painfully aware of the vulnerability
of their own position and felt very nervous every time an electoral contest
approached. This is well illustrated by the 1889 by-election in Central
Birmingham, the seat formerly held by John Bright. Like Chamberlain,
he had long personified the radical domination of the city, a hegemony
deeply resented by the local Conservatives. When the veteran Radical
tribune fell ill in 1888, discussions about selecting a successor for
him were started between Chamberlain and Palmer on behalf of the
E. D. Steele, â€˜Gladstone and Irelandâ€™, Irish Historical Studies, 17, 65 (1970), 61.
Letter by James Couper Jr. (Glasgow), â€˜A National partyâ€™, The Liberal Unionist,
Apr. 1891, 175.
Letter by R. Bird (Glasgow), The Liberal Unionist, Mar. 1891, 155 (my emphasis). See
also W. L. Blench (Derby), â€˜A National partyâ€™, The Liberal Unionist, Feb. 1891, 128.
Tuckwell, Reminiscences, 70.
270 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
Conservatives, who hoped to secure the seat. Chamberlain seemed ready
to contemplate a deal.261
There were various reasons why Chamberlain felt unsure of his hold
over Central Birmingham. Bright had been a loyal supporter of the
Unionist cause, but also uncompromising in his anti-imperialism. If
the latter was shared by his electors, the seat might be lost to the
Gladstonians, whose strength in the town was difficult to assess. After
all, late in 1888 they had held a triumphant demonstration at Bingley
Hall, where the GOM addressed the annual meeting of the NLF. He had
attracted large crowds, up to â€˜twenty-five thousand men and womenâ€™,
eliciting unprecedented demonstrations of support for the cause of con-
stitutional reform.262 The threat of a Gladstonian breakthrough was,
however, only part of the problem. In view of the Chamberlainâ€“Palmer
discussions of 1888, a crucial question concerned the proportion of the
Unionist vote which was actually Conservative rather than Radical.
Chamberlain needed to be able to show to their Conservative ally-
competitors that â€˜the democracyâ€™ was still with â€˜Joeâ€™, so that there
would be no question of a Tory, rather than a Liberal Unionist, candida-
ture in future.263
When the seat eventually became vacant, the Radical Unionists
selected John Albert Bright, a son of the late MP, to contest it. He was
neither gifted nor committed as a politician, and gave a rather conde-
scending electoral address, indicating that he would have preferred to be
elected without having to speak to his constituents.264 Despite this,
caucus officials had reason to believe that â€˜a real live Brightâ€™ would be
â€˜an amazingly strong candidateâ€™.265 Yet, Austen Chamberlain, J. Powell
Williams and other Radical Unionist party leaders canvassed the constit-
uency anxiously. When the early results looked too good to be true, they
counter-canvassed by sending round a Radical Unionist farm labourer
who pretended to be touting for the Gladstonians, to see whether people
would make indifferent promises of support to whoever turned up.266 To
their great relief, reports came in to indicate that â€˜the L[iberal]
â€˜Synopsis of a conversation on Friday September 11 â€“ 1888 between Mr Chamberlain
and Mr Palmerâ€™, JC, 6/2/1/23. The notes were taken by Palmer, the Conservative agent,
who later asked Chamberlain for permission to publish them; the permission was denied
as Chamberlain had â€˜no recollection of the details of the private interviewâ€™ (Chamberlain
to Palmer of Birmingham Gazette, 20 Apr. 1889, JC 6/2/1/24).
According to one eye-witness: Tuckwell, Reminiscences, 78â€“83.
Hurst, â€˜Joseph Chamberlainâ€™, 90â€“1.
Rep., â€˜Mr Brightâ€™s candidatureâ€™, Birmingham Daily Post, 11 Apr. 1889, 5.
J. Powell Williams to J. Chamberlain, 11 Apr. 1889, JC 6/2/1/19.
Austen Chamberlain to J. Chamberlain 10 Apr. 1889, JC 6/2/1/17; J. Powell Williams to
J. Chamberlain, 10 Apr. 1889, JC 6/2/1/18.
The rise and fall of Radical Unionism 271
U[nionist]s [were] much stronger than [was] generally supposedâ€™.267
J. Powell Williams, an old caucus hand, agreed: â€˜One thing comes out
most clearly, and in a way that cannot be really controverted, namely that
there are an immense number of Liberal Unionists in the Division, and
that the Tory estimate of the [?] relative strength of the sections of the
unionist forces is all fudge.â€™268
Eventually the result was a triumph, with more than a two-to-one
victory for the Radical Unionist candidate on 15 April 1889. However,
the election continued to foment bad blood within the Unionist camp.
Albert Bright felt undermined by the virulent hostility of the Conservative
caucus and their chief â€˜wirepullerâ€™, Satchell Hopkins. By November he
had already considered resigning and retiring from politics.269 Although
he did not do so but actually stayed on to win the seat in 1892, his
weakness forced Chamberlain to negotiate with the Conservatives. The
ensuing correspondence between Chamberlain, Powell Williams and
Hopkins provides a classic example of how â€˜wirepullingâ€™ bypassed the
formal democratic process of candidate selection by local caucuses.
Moreover, old animosities resurfaced and the discussion became embar-
rassingly confrontational and public.270 The Tories demanded a larger
share of the Birmingham constituencies and threatened to field Lord
Randolph Churchill without further consultation with the Liberal
Unionists.271 Throughout the episode and subsequent developments
the Conservatives were remarkably arrogant and aggressive while
Chamberlain was atypically diplomatic and accommodating.272
It was but a foretaste of things to come and an example of the general
Liberal Unionist predicament. All over the country, as Liberal Unionist
A. Chamberlain to J. Chamberlain, 10 Apr. 1889, JC 6/2/1/17.
J. Powell Williams to J. Chamberlain, 11 Apr. 1889, JC 6/2/1/19.
John Albert Bright to J. Chamberlain, 5 Nov. 1889, JC 6/2/1/26; John Albert Bright to
J. Chamberlain 8 Nov. 1889, JC 6/2/1/27.
See newscutting about this from the Birmingham Times, 28 Apr. 1889: â€˜A call to
Conservatives: Stirring letter by Mr J Owlands: three seats demanded: Lord R.
Churchillâ€™s meetingâ€™, in JC 6/2/6/2; J. Chamberlain to J. S. Hopkins, 1 Aug. 1889, JC
6/2/5/2; J. Chamberlain to J. S. Hopkins, 29 Oct. 1889, JC 6/2/5/5; memo of a meeting
with J. Powell Williams, G. Dixon and J. Satchell Hopkins, 23 Feb. 1891, JC 6/2/3/2;
memo by Chamberlain of his meeting with Hopkins, n.d., JC 6/2/3/1; Chamberlain to
Hopkins, 17 Apr. 1891, JC 6/2/5/13.
J. Chamberlain to J. S. Hopkins, 1 Aug. 1889, JC 6/2/5/2; C. A. Vince to J. Chamberlain,
25 May 1895, JC 6/2/7/7.
â€˜Central Birmingham Parliamentary Division â€“ Resume of Events and Proceedings, 23
Mar. 1895â€™, JC 6/2/7/3; C. A. Vince to J. Chamberlain, 25 May 1895, JC 6/2/7/7;
C. A. Vince to J. Chamberlain, 7 June 1895, JC 6/2/7/11. See also correspondence in
JC 6/2/7/20â€“26 showing the power of â€˜wirepullersâ€™ and local leaders in the period
1886â€“95, with some minor qualification in terms of what the rank and file would accept,
but little reference to the wishes of ordinary electors.
272 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
seats became vacant, local Conservative associations bullied their allies to
secure a Tory candidature or to exact favourable terms from them. For
example, in 1892 when Austen Chamberlain proposed his own candida-
ture for East Worcestershire, the local Conservative association refused to
endorse him â€˜unless he [was] prepared to pledge that he [would] not
support the Disestablishment of any branch of the State Churchâ€™. This
prompted the Birmingham Liberal Unionists to threaten to withdraw
their endorsement of the Conservative candidate for East Birmingham
unless he promised to back disestablishment.273 It was not the only
incident of its kind. In 1894â€“5 there were serious disputes between the
Liberal Unionist and Conservative associations for the selection of the
Unionist candidate for Hythe (Sussex) and Warwick and Leamington.274
Instead of appealing confidently to the electors, the Liberal Unionists
pleaded with their allies to respect the 1886 â€˜treaty obligationsâ€™. But the
Conservatives pressed for the creation of a joint Unionist association â€“
which would have involved the stronger group effectively absorbing the
weaker. The reality was that, â€˜[l]ooking at the state of the two parties â€“ the
Conservatives outnumber the Liberal Unionists by at least nine to one,
and that a Liberal Unionist candidate will have no chance whatever of
being returned without the support of the greater number of the
Conservatives in the boroughâ€™.275
These conflicts also reflected both the ideological tensions between the
two branches of the Unionist coalition and the extent to which Liberal
Unionists continued to be sensitive about their own â€˜Liberalâ€™ identity
even at this late stage and with the prospect of a Gladstonian electoral
victory. Despite confident predictions that the GOMâ€™s â€˜extremismâ€™
would soon drive recalcitrant moderate voters into the arms of the
Liberal Unionists,276 it was the latter who felt increasingly squeezed out
of the political game. With the Gladstonian party virtually dominating the
left, the Liberal Unionists needed to draw closer to the Tories in the hope
that they would thus be able to attract the moderate vote.277 But they
J. Chamberlain to A J Balfour, 18 Jan. 1892, JC 6/6/1C/3.
See correspondence and newscuttings in JC 6/6/1E/1 and JC 6/6/1E/2, including a letter
by John Sherwood, chairman of the local branch of the Liberal Unionist association to
the Folkestone Express, 1 Sep. 1894 and the reply from from the leader of the local
Conservative caucus; and G. Peel to J. Chamberlain, 12 Mar. 1895, JC 6/6/1F/1.
See JC 6/6/1E/1, JC 6/6/1E/3 and in particular JC 6/6/1E/2, â€˜The Borough representa-
tionâ€™, newscutting from the Folkestone Express, 22 Nov. 1894, letter sent by General Sir
J. Bevan Edwards, selected Conservative candidate to A. H. Gardner, Secretary of the
Conservative association. See also the correspondence between J. Borastin, the Duke of
Devonshire, Lord Salisbury and J. Chamberlain (early 1895) in JC 6/6/1E/5â€“8.
C. A. Vince to J. Chamberlain, 1 Apr. 1895, JC 6/6/1F/21.
C. A. Vince to J. Chamberlain, 1 Apr. 1895, in JC 6/6/1F/21.
The rise and fall of Radical Unionism 273
found it increasingly difficult to reconcile their Liberal or Radical identity
with the compromises which coalition politics demanded, especially in
the sphere of ecclesiastical and religious questions â€“ including the
Salisbury government soliciting the Popeâ€™s intervention against Irish
Nationalism and the Tory opposition to the Welsh church disestablish-
The crisis culminated in the case of the 1895 Warwick and Leamington
by-election, when George Peel, the Liberal Unionist candidate, was
humiliated after a long controversy about the selection of a Unionist to
represent the constituency. Again some party enthusiasts and wirepullers
started by boasting of their strength among the electors and especially the
working men, while being well aware that they were playing â€˜a game of
bluffâ€™.279 Chamberlain still hoped to be able to rely on the working-class
vote, at least in his Midlands stronghold. In the end this proved insuffi-
cient â€“ a further instance of the fact that his advocacy of social reform was
a questionable asset when it came to deciding how the urban working
class would vote.280
Although embittered, in 1895 the Radical Unionists again had to put
up with further Conservative demands in Central Birmingham when
Albert Bright finally stood down. They came to an agreement with the
Tories but the bitterness remained: â€˜I wish all Birm[ingha]m Tories were
in Sheol!â€™ exclaimed Powell Williams, in utter frustration.281 â€˜[I]f we are
to continue to be treated by the Conservative Party just as now, we
shall give up supporting them,â€™ complained one official of another